Every writer – hell, every artist – is in the business of finding their own voice. Artists know what this means, but such a statement might sound like white noise to anyone who isn’t in the business. So in short, the voice is like their fingerprint, the stamp of personality that bleeds red ink into every poem, painting, installation, or film the artist creates. The only difference is whereas people are born with unique fingerprints, artists need to develop theirs.
Now in my mid-30s, I find myself asking whether or not I’m ever going to finish developing the voice I’m seeking. With each passing year, the pieces I write are ever evolving, and whereas there are certain elements that appear to tie poems and plays together, it’s only ever minor pieces to a greater puzzle that I’m working on.
When I first started writing, and indeed when I first started thinking about myself as a “writer,” I was a poet. I was 17, I believe, when I took my first poetry class, which was at Vermilion Community College in Ely, MN. There were some hours to fill, and Intro to Poetry seemed to fit quite nicely. I was a drawer back then, romantically hopeful of becoming an artist in whatever manner a teenage boy imagines an artist to be, and the thought of dabbling in poetry seemed as good of an idea as any toward that end. The professor had a penchant for the Black Mountain and Beat poets of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and, well, I think it can be safely said that the idealistic sentimentality and raw emotion of this poetry spoke to me in a way that visual art never really had. Despite the fact that my tastes have grown, I’m still a huge fan of the work of people like Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Bukowski, thanks to that class.
While all my classmates were
doodling in their spare time,
I found myself writing free verse
poems in my sketch pads.
I eventually moved on to a graphic design school, which is where I was already planning on going before I ever thought about taking that poetry class, but I didn’t last very long. While all my classmates were doodling in their spare time (which is basically freelance homework in an art school), I found myself writing free verse poems in my sketch pads. After a few months, I quit the school and enrolled in the University of Minnesota to pursue a degree in English Literature, while focusing on creative writing. I excitedly threw myself into all sorts of different courses, and while I excelled at interpretation, I never really managed the academic style of textual analysis essays that were the bread and butter of programs like that one. Often I would find myself talking to professors about my thoughts on different poems, short stories, and novels, getting wide-eyed praise on my take on these classics of American and British literature, only to get a somewhat deflated response from them a few days later after they read my essays. But it’s not like this was something I wanted to do anyway… I wanted to write the next generation of classic literature, not critical essays about what dead authors wrote. So my big hope was to get into the creative writing senior seminar my last semester at school, which was tough because it was the only seminar that you needed to be selected for via a writing sample.
I remember talking to my advisor about this hope one day in the fall of 2003, and she nodded her head in agreement that this would be a good idea for me to try. But then she stopped, looked at some notes on her desk, and told me that I had better hurry because today was the deadline for submissions to the creative writing seminar for spring semester! My eyes bulged as I sat there breathless, furiously thinking about how I was going to manage to make it home, pull together a collection of poems, and make it back to campus by 4 p.m. Fortunately, I had a very similar schedule to one of my roommates, one who had a car at that, so I found him and borrowed his keys. I raced home, picked out and printed a dozen or so of what I thought were my best poems, wrote a letter of intent, and hauled ass back to campus in time to slide my application under the door with less than a half hour to spare. The effort paid off, and I spent the next semester writing poetry with about a dozen other poets and nonfiction writers.
Life experience, the exploration
of the nuance of the world, only
comes with time spent out in the
world, living life for awhile.
For as fondly as I look back at my college days, and for how formidable they were in my education, I have a hard time really crediting this time of my life as being the most prescient in the development of my writing voice. Sure, my technical ability as a writer made huge leaps during this time, but the questions of what I should write or why still evaded me. But then again, that’s not really what college is for. Life experience, the exploration of the nuance of the world, only comes with time spent out in the world, living life for awhile. And that’s why I largely credit all the time since college as the time that I’ve truly spent looking for my voice.
But to what end? I’ve now spent over a decade on this hunt, so what gives? Well, first off, it should be noted that it hasn’t been fruitless. If I insist on using the analogy of the hunt, I’ve clearly brought down some game over the past few years, allowing me to eat. But when the hunter takes down some yearling buck in the forest, does he just give up then? I’d sure hope not. As I said before, there are elements of the voice that I aspire to have already in the poems, plays, and fictions that I write; so the hunt just continues for some future dinner.
Second of all, this whole initial line of questioning presumes that a voice is a destination. The mere fact that I can see a horizon that I aspire to means that I’ve learned enough to acknowledge that which I yet don’t know. There’s no reason to believe that there won’t be a further horizon once I reach the one in sight. Back in college, I had hopes and dreams of being a writer, but I simply didn’t know what that actually entailed. The romantic visage has worn away some, but that doesn’t mean that the ideals of what art can do have worn away with it. And with that particular education, the ridges of my artistic fingerprint are gradually raising. The only question left is how deep the impact will be.